Halloween with a Korean

This week, I got back to Korea from a month long trip home that I manage to get away for once a year. This year, we were home for Thanksgiving and it dawned on me that for the past four years I have taken Jae-oo home to celebrate a different American holiday each time. And each time I realize it is his first time celebrating a holiday, I have this urge to make a baby’s “Jae-oo’s First” album of the events that transpire. Seeing these holidays through his eyes and answering questions that seem so obvious to me as I grew up celebrating a certain way manage to make the holiday and so many other experiences at home new again.

I decided while I was home that when I got back to Korea, I would write a series of blogs on those new again experiences that I have had with him over the years while in the States to remind myself, and maybe a few other people, of the simple happiness that can come through really opening our eyes and looking at things in a different light or through someone else’s eyes as was the case when I was driving down a road in Kettering, Ohio a few years ago and caught Jae-oo chuckling to himself. I had had to stop the car as a flock of Canadian geese migrating down south for the winter had stopped at a nearby pond and were waddling across the street. These geese were not at all a new sight to me and I found it to be a minor inconvenience to see them cross, but he had never witnessed such a thing and between laughs wagged his butt back and forth in the seat to reproduce what he was enjoying so much. Seeing how much he fancied the scene made me re-evaluate what I was watching at the time and it was in fact a rather humorous thing to see while driving. But let me not get ahead of myself.

Let’s go back a few years to the very first trip home together. It was October of 2009 and of course that means we were celebrating Halloween. At the ripe old age of 25, Halloween was not really a big holiday to celebrate for me. There would be no trick-or-treating and most likely there would not be a costume, but knowing that Jae-oo hadn’t ever really celebrated it, I decided to show him the ropes. My cousin from Colorado came into town with her boyfriend for the weekend and we piled into the car to find some pumpkins to carve up. Jae-oo had seen this in the movies and heard of this custom and seemed ready to try his hand at it. At the pumpkin yard I explained that he wanted to find a good round pumpkin, nothing too large that he couldn’t carry, but nothing so small that he couldn’t carve a good face into. I told him to make sure it was ripe and didn’t have any rotten sides too. He went around carefully picking up pumpkins and examining them until he found one he liked and asked if it was a good one. If it worked for him it worked for us, we paid for our batch and took them home to begin the carving.


With a newspaper covered table, markers and knives prepared, we told him to cut the top off first to take out the insides. He’d never done this before and once he felt the mushy insides of a pumpkin he just couldn’t stop asking why we were doing this. Not one to get dirty generally, he was a little dumbfounded about why we would get together and do this every year. I honestly hadn’t known “why” we do this or where it came from and I told him we just do. Upon later investigation it seems these lanterns are made and lit up to ward off evil spirits a tradition that has persisted originally coming from the Celts as far back as 800BCE. I had no idea! While picking out the goo we explained that we should also try to separate the big clumps of seeds from the gooey bits so we could cook the seeds later. Again there was a why and how these seeds could be worth it, but he continued on. After getting all the goo out and on the table the next step was to draw the face.


There was also a lot of explanation about the face, which I hadn’t expected. I’d grown up seeing lanterns and I think it is common to see triangle shaped eyes, a triangle shaped nose and a mouth open with an odd tooth here and there. My cousin and I began to draw while Jae-oo looked back and forth a few times before I realized he didn’t know what the face should look like. Obviously cutting a face in a pumpkin isn’t all that easy, which is probably why most people grow up and teach their children to put triangles in their pumpkin heads because they are three straight lines making it easier to do, but I hadn’t remembered being taught this myself and so when I looked at him and thought to say something I had to chuckle to myself first. Who teaches us these things? Do we just see pictures and follow the crowd or listen to tales from our elders and choose to continue the traditions? I suppose that’s what I did. I remember in daycare being given an orange circle and triangles to glue on to the paper pumpkin lantern. There weren’t other options when I remember back, which for anyone that has taught young children was probably a good idea, but there was no explanation why either. At one point when I got a bit older and could yield the knife myself I had tried square eyes, but they just didn’t look right when I was finished and so I told Jae-oo what a lantern often looks like when finished and handed him a marker.


He came up with an idea all his own, opting for fang like teeth over my hillbilly toothless grin and where I had my lantern playfully winking, his triangles were angled making his lantern seem scarier. Because his was a bit “scary” looking when he finished, he added two little dimple like circles in the cheeks to make his lantern a happier fanged pumpkin head. His mouth wasn’t perfectly smooth and reminded me of what my first few years of lantern carving probably resembled. While carving his pumpkin an ‘ah’ or ‘uh’ would escape his lips as he had clearly cut further than he had wanted to go, but we reassured him and said it was all in the eye of the beholder which reminded me of being younger and hearing my mom calm me down when I was sure I’d made a huge error. In the end his lantern was adorably scary and we took our pumpkins to the front steps and put candles in them to ward off the evil spirits to come.



The whole morning was an introduction to me of what Jae-oo must feel like when I’m with him in Korea. My questions may sometimes seem simplistic and cute to him as he has always seen or done something and so I began to understand why he sometimes has to laugh to himself before answering.


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